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Intuitive Marketing: Achieving influence without persuasion

October 14, 2014 4 Comments

The tyranny of persuasive marketing

Retro pitch man in black and white from a 1950's era TV commercialMuch of current marketing is based on an overt persuasion model. This model says the purpose of marketing is to make people do what you want them to do by changing their minds and their behavior. This notion of persuasion is deeply entrenched in marketing and advertising’s roots in sales and personal selling. It assumes marketers must first grab people’s attention, then persuade them with information and arguments, then get them to remember that persuasive message at a later point in time so it can impact their purchase decisions.

Persuasion is an act that must be received and interpreted consciously. It is impossible to persuade someone if they are not consciously aware of the persuasion attempt. So the act of persuasion and the measurement of persuasion both occur in the conscious realm. But an unintended byproduct of this conscious focus is that persuasive messaging, in order to activate conscious attention, must wrest attention away from wherever it was focused before. This act of interruption is by its very nature invasive and disruptive, and often results in a negative emotional reaction toward the source of interruption – the message itself and the brand or product it is promoting. Because this reaction is predominantly nonconscious, and traditional market research is only measuring conscious reactions, marketers remain unaware of these effects.

Persuasive marketing violates the brain’s processing preferences in other ways as well. Not only does it demand that we shift our attention from our own priorities to those of the messenger, it also demands that we shift to an information processing perspective, because it wants us to notice and absorb its argument, which is delivered in a logical if-then format as a benefit statement, demonstration, or comparative claim. To understand, store, and later retrieve the message, persuasive marketing requires that the message be consciously converted into a proposition of the form “this product can do X, therefore I should prefer it / remember it / buy it.”

Such propositional logic is uniquely available only to conscious System 2 processing. If System 2 is not successfully activated, the message’s meaning cannot be decoded by the nonconscious System 1 behavioral guidance system. It may be in sight, but it is out of mind, and therefore unlikely to be recalled with any precision later on. Without a full conscious commitment on the part of the consumer, persuasive marketing cannot achieve its goals.

Influence without persuasion

persuasion-influence-for-dummiesA fair question marketers might ask is: “So what alternatives do we have?” One way to answer this question is to draw on the distinction between persuasion and influence.

As human beings and as consumers, we have a natural aversion to being persuaded, but we are not opposed to being influenced. In fact, we need and seek out influences. When we speak of someone being “a good influence” it has a completely different meaning than when we speak of someone being “persuasive.” Persuasion is a transactional experience. It is fundamentally about whether I, the persuader, can get you, the target, to do what I want you to do, right now or as soon as you possibly can. Influence, in contrast, is more relational and long-term. It does not require an explicit transaction to operate, it can grow and gain strength over time, as well as be achieved at a distance. Influence is also reciprocal. I let you influence me because you give me something in return. When you persuade me, all the benefits go to you.

I believe the key defining feature of intuitive marketing is that it operates on the basis of influence, not persuasion. For it to work properly as a method of influence, it must first and foremost meet the purposes and needs of the consumer to whom it is directed. Only when it does this can it reinforce or change behavior and thereby serve the needs of the marketer.

Six mechanisms of influence used by intuitive marketing

How can intuitive marketing meet this lofty goal of influencing consumers in the absence of overt persuasion? There are at least six mechanisms of influence that intuitive marketing can leverage: trust, consistency, fluency, aspiration, emotional reward, and aligned intent.

brand-trustTrust: Intuitive marketing builds trust and relies on trust. Trust is largely a function of reputation, and building and reinforcing brand reputation is a critical function of marketing. As Rory Sutherland points out, brand reputation is costly to acquire and extremely costly to lose. The trust engendered by reputation allows brands to command a price premium, but only as long as the product experiences sold under that brand live up to the brand’s promises (see Behavioral Economics Guide – 2014, p. xv, download here). Intuitive marketing contributes to trust by slowly building familiarity, comfort, and positive emotional associations over time.

Consistency: Intuitive marketing is consistent and therefore communicates reliability. Expectancy violations can be very disruptive of the mental associations laboriously built by marketers. Changing messages and themes in mid-stream to attract attention or resuscitate a tired brand is a classic error of persuasive marketing, and one that intuitive marketing avoids at all costs.

Fluency: Intuitive marketing is easy on the mind. It is simple and clear, knowing that taxing consumers’ cognitive resources to tell a persuasive story is in most circumstances futile. Processing fluency brings its own rewards of familiarity and liking, without the need to resort to persuasive messaging.

Aspiration: Human beings are hard-wired to be aspirational. We always want to achieve more, to be part of something greater than ourselves. Our aspirational nature has some downsides, such as our propensity to think way too highly of ourselves and our capabilities. But it also has significant upsides, in that it provides much of our motivation and drive to succeed. Intuitive marketing often leverages aspiration in place of persuasion. Brands that build aspirational goals into their identity – Nike and achievement, Apple and creativity, Disney and lifelong family memories – are seldom found resorting to the usual mechanics of persuasive marketing.

Emotional reward: At the opposite end of the spectrum from high aspiration is the realm of small emotional rewards. Intuitive marketing recognizes and leverages the power of small emotional rewards, which often provide an excellent substitute for persuasion. This source of influence is closely related to the counterintuitive idea that intuitive marketing does not need to make sense. As Les Binet and Susan Carter observe in a recent WARC blog post entitled “Mythbusters: The idea that marketing always needs to make sense“:

… it doesn’t make ‘sense’ for Coke to sell cans with people’s names on them. It didn’t make much sense for Cadbury to sell chocolate with a gorilla. And it doesn’t make sense for Innocent Smoothies to amuse people on its packaging. But when you do things that make people smile, they tend to buy your product.

There’s a generosity of spirit about a lot of this stuff – the brand is giving us an emotional freebie. And behavioural economics shows that we get disproportionately excited about free things – especially stuff that we get here and now.

Aligned intent: Finally, intuitive marketing works by ensuring that marketing remains as closely aligned as possible with the intentions, motivations, goals, and purposes of the consumer to whom it is directed. While persuasive marketing is usually oblivious to the consumer’s needs and interests in comparison to its own, relegating to itself the right to interrupt and assault the consumer whenever and wherever it chooses, intuitive marketing recognizes the importance of anticipating and reacting to the consumer’s current mental state and situation. This is the case in both the passive state of mind most consumers enjoy when watching TV or movies, and the much more active and goal-directed state of mind that accompanies activities like web browsing and video gaming. Intuitive marketing recognizes that there is no marketing message has an inherent level of “effectiveness.” Marketing is effective only to the extent it aligns with the needs and interests of the consumer it is attempting to influence.

This is not to deny that there are many circumstances in which both consumers and marketers benefit from the skilled application of persuasive marketing. The key criterion for effective use of persuasive marketing is that the intended target of the marketing effort must be motivated to receive and process its message. This idea has been embedded in the concept of the “prospect” — a potential buyer who is known to have an existing or potential need for, or interest in, buying a product. But most marketing does not have the luxury of such direct access to motivated prospects, so it casts its marketing messages widely, knowing that it will call out to many, but few will listen. It is in these latter situations that intuitive marketing becomes a viable and effective alternative to persuasive marketing.

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

Comments (4)

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  1. Hello, I came across your post and I was very moved. I was wondering if you or someone you know taught any courses on intuitive marketing. I’m part of a startup and I feel very strongly about not coming across as cheesy or salesly in any area of what we are doing. I’d rather create something [a brand] that sells itself and I feel intuitive marketing is one very important path to take in hopes of getting there. Any information you can provide is extremely appreciated. Thank you!

  2. Steve Genco says:

    Hi Leah, thank you for the generous comment! I have another post on this blog about intuitive marketing that includes a video of a talk I gave on the topic at an IIeX Conference a while back. I also teach a course in the Stanford Continuing Studies program that covers intuitive marketing, but unfortunately you have to be local in the SF Bay Area to take it. Finally, I am writing a book that goes much deeper into the brain science underlying intuitive marketing and the practical reasons why it should be more widely adopted by marketers. It’s on schedule to be published sometime in 2018, so stay tuned for that!

    The key idea behind intuitive marketing is that heavy-handed attention-grabbing persuasive tactics are not required to influence consumers, and the most successful brands seldom use such tactics. Of the various influence-without-persuasion mechanisms I outline in this post (the list has undergone some evolution since I wrote this) I believe the most powerful is what I now call “connecting to aspirations and self-affirmation.” Consumers resist having wants and needs imposed on them by persuasive messaging (“you must buy this detergent if you don’t want to be embarrassed by the whiteness of your whites!”), but they are quite willing to embrace brands that support their own aspirations and self-affirmation needs. I believe such brands do indeed sell themselves.

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